God is revealed in simple 'sound bites'
By Father Paul Turner
Catholic Key Scripture Columni
The Good News for the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ
Sunday, June 13, 2004'
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
and the 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time, June 20, 2004
The sound bites of a political campaign contain nuggets of truth. A candidate's supporters and detractors can use words out of context to achieve good or ill. By scrutinizing original remarks a voter can discern what was said and what was meant. Sometimes setting sound bites in new contexts can reveal new ideas.
The New Testament frequently captures sound bites from the Old Testament, either to prove a point or to inspire faith. Sometimes we know the new context of the "sound bite" better than its original. That is the case with two passages found in the Scriptures over the next two Sundays.
We began Ordinary Time right after Pentecost, but it is easier to recognize on weekdays than on Sundays. This weekend, still in the afterglow of Easter, we celebrate another day of special solemnity: the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. Next weekend we return to the Sundays in Ordinary Time.
Although these next two Sundays have little in common, the lectionary of these days coincidentally offers a pair of first readings well known for passages the New Testament Church regarded as prophecies. Each contains a popular sound bite, one foreshadowing the Eucharist and the other the crucifixion.
This weekend's first reading introduces Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18-20). War is the context for these verses. Four kings on campaign have attacked and captured Abram's nephew, Lot. Abram goes to the rescue with hundreds of armed soldiers, routs the kings, frees his nephew and collects the spoils of war.
Melchizedek appears out of nowhere. He is king and priest - king of a place named Salem, and priest of a deity called "God Most High." He brings out bread and wine, and proclaims that Abram is blessed by God, and God is blessed by having delivered Abram from his foes. Abram tithes: He gives a tenth of everything to Melchizedek. Melchizedek reappears later as a model of priesthood in Psalm 110:1-4.
The Genesis story is simple, but followers of Jesus regarded it as a prophecy because of several sound bites: king, priest, blessing, and - most importantly - bread and wine. The Letter to the Hebrews applied many of these words to Christ (5:1-10; 7:1-4, 26-28). Melchizedek prefigures Christ because he is a priest who has no specific past or future. He is an eternal priest. He is king of a place named Salem, which means "peace," and he brings out bread and wine, the same elements that Jesus, priest and king, blessed and gave to the disciples at the Last Supper as his own body and blood.
We will hear the first story of Melchizedek this weekend because it foreshadows the gift of the Eucharist, the most holy body and blood of Christ.
The following weekend we hear an obscure passage from the prophecy of Zechariah (12:10-11; 13:1). In this book, God has been promising the exiles that they would see the destruction of their enemies and the restitution of their authority in Jerusalem. But God expects this chosen people to exercise a compassionate leadership. God will pour out onto them "a spirit of grace and petition," so that they shall look with grief upon the suffering. Specifically, "they shall look on him whom they have pierced."
The New Testament regards this verse as a prophecy for the death of Jesus. As a soldier pierces the side of Jesus with a lance, the evangelist says it fulfilled this prophecy (John 19:37). When Jesus appears on the clouds at the opening of the Book of Revelation, the writer says he will be recognized by those who pierced him (1:7).
The original context of the prophecy seems to refer to anyone who suffered the agony of war wounds, but Christian tradition has claimed this sound bite for its own by applying it to one victim, Jesus.
To some students of Scripture, the New Testament made too much of these texts. The originals have more to do with other matters. In Genesis, the story concerns Abram's loyalty to his family and disdain for keeping the spoils of war. In Zechariah, the prophecy issues God's challenge that Israel's leaders be of good character after they win their conflict.
The context of the original sound bites may be that simple, but they have come to represent much more to believers: the ancient plan of God for the suffering of Jesus and his eternal presence in the Eucharist. God is still revealed in the simplest sacrifice, the gravest loss, and the silent meditation on a few sacred words.
Father Paul Turner is the pastor of St. Munchin Parish in Cameron.